What looms as a defining offseason for the Royals is already taking shape even as, elsewhere this weekend, Major League Baseball swings through the opening stages of its annual October drama.
The Royals’ need to upgrade their rotation — their paramount and overriding priority — hinges on two intertwined questions in the coming months:
Will owner David Glass underwrite the payroll necessary, even if it means operating in the red, to secure the additional arms needed to enable a perennial 90-loss club to bridge the gap to postseason contention?
Can general manager Dayton Moore, if granted that financial muscle, acquire sufficient impact starting pitchers in a competitive free-agent market, or through trades, to achieve that long-elusive goal?
Early signs offer reasons for cautious optimism.
Glass recently pledged a willingness to “do what we need to do” to complete an organizational overhaul that began with Moore’s arrival in June 2006. That facelift previously centered on significant investments in scouting and player development.
Those seeding efforts are now bearing fruit everywhere except the rotation, which prompted Glass to declare: “We are committed to improving our starting pitching.”
Just how committed is hard to pin down, although indications suggest the opening-day payroll should possess the flexibility to rise from $64 million to about $75 million — maybe more, if the Royals are convinced that a little extra can secure the right player.
“I feel like it will (be significantly higher than this year)…” Moore said. “I’ve felt all along that we’ll always have the necessary resources to move forward and do what we need to do to improve our team.”
That’s not to suggest the Royals will suddenly turn into the Yankees or the midsummer-dreaming Dodgers. For example: The odds of reacquiring Zack Greinke, who rejected a $100 million offer earlier this year from the Brewers, are notably remote.
“Our market is what it is,” Moore said. “We’re not going to have a payroll of $100 million. We know that going into it. We embrace who we are… We’ve got to stay consistent with our approach. We’re not going get crazy and go nuts in free agency.”
The Royals gathered their staff last week at Kauffman Stadium to map out offseason priorities. The discussions centered overwhelmingly on improving the rotation, although offensive production this season lagged near the bottom of the American League.
“Here’s the thing,” one club official said. “If we’re wrong about (Eric) Hosmer and (Mike) Moustakas or if some of our other young players really regress, then nothing else matters. We’ll all be fired anyway.”
That was meant to be flip; the Royals don’t believe they’re wrong on their young core of position players. They like their bullpen, although they’re open to upgrading the front end of it. They see their defense as being as good as any in the American League.
“We’re like 29 other clubs right now,” Moore said. “We’re going to bust our tail this offseason to get good starting pitching.”
Neither Moore nor other club officials will announce free-agent targets since there is no advantage in doing so, but there are indications the Royals have right-handers Anibal Sánchez and Kyle Lohse at the top of their list.
Sánchez, 28, was a combined 9-13 with a 3.86 ERA this season in 31 starts for Miami and Detroit. The Royals twice saw how good he can be: Sánchez yielded one run and 10 hits in 16 innings against them in two starts while striking out 16 and walking three.
Lohse, 34, was 16-3 and 2.86 this season in 33 starts for St. Louis. He pitches to contact and throws strikes, and the Royals believe he is a good fit for their big ballpark and playmaking defense.
Competition for Sánchez and Lohse is likely to be fierce. The Royals’ secondary list is believed to include Ryan Dempster, Hiroki Kuroda, Shaun Marcum, Carlos Villanueva and Carlos Zambrano.
The Royals expect to recalibrate their list after seeing which pitchers become available because clubs exercise buyout options. Possibilities include Dan Haren, Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy, Ervin Santana and James Shields.
Those buyout possibilities could also become trade targets if, say, a team is willing to accept a middle reliever or a minor-league prospect. They might — teams get nothing in compensation if a player signs elsewhere after a buyout.
For the Royals, much hinges on whether they retain free-agent Jeremy Guthrie, who provided exactly what club officials are seeking — reliable consistency — after arriving in a July 20 trade from Colorado for Jonathan Sánchez (last winter’s lamentable addition).
Guthrie was 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts. Take away his first two outings, when he was working out kinks with pitching coach Dave Eiland, and his numbers are even better: 5-1 with a 2.34 ERA for 12 starts.
The Royals, not surprisingly, want to keep Guthrie, and he is openly amenable, saying: “Absolutely … I think any pitcher would be fortunate to pitch here.”
Here’s the rub: Guthrie likely won’t stay at a discount. He made $8.2 million this year, will be 34 next April and is likely negotiating his last big contract.
It’s also hard to assess his place in the market.
Guthrie was a bust in Colorado (3-9, 6.35 ERA) before the trade and, while he was a workhorse over the five previous seasons in Baltimore, he also led the American League in losses in 2009 and 2011.
The Royals tend to view Guthrie as a plus if retained on a one- or two-year deal, even if they have to overpay the market, but appear unwilling, at this point, to consider anything beyond two years.
For now, the Royals have uncontested negotiations with Guthrie. Players don’t become free agents, and therefore eligible to negotiate with other clubs, until after the World Series.
“There’s always a chance (of working out a deal before free agency),” Moore said. “These negotiations seem to go much better and smoother for everybody when you keep it between the two parties.”
An early resolution on Guthrie is important because it affects how the Royals approach the rest of the offseason. Club officials privately acknowledge signing Guthrie should permit the Royals to pursue another free-agent pitcher.
If Guthrie departs, the Royals are unlikely to possess enough cash to pursue two impact free-agent pitchers. That will force them into a bottom-feeding mode (which they will probably do anyway in hopes of catching lightning) or seeking help through a trade.
“I wouldn’t say anybody is untouchable,” Moore said. “You go into any discussion with an open mind. That being said, there are certain positions on the diamond that are very difficult to replace.
“You don’t want to compromise in one area just to get strong in another area.”
Let’s crunch some numbers.
The Royals currently have approximately $32.75 million in salary obligations next season to six players (not counting an anticipated $750,000 buyout on pitcher Joakim Soria’s $8 million option or the $750,000 owed to pitcher Noel Arguelles).
At least four are eligible for arbitration: pitchers Luke Hochevar and Felipe Paulino, catcher Brayan Peña and second baseman Chris Getz. Pitcher Blake Wood is also a likely qualifier under the super-2 provision.
Retaining all five, if the Royals so choose, could add $10 million-$11 million to the payroll.
The rest of the roster consists of players with insufficient service time for arbitration and should cost roughly $10 million.
If those numbers are correct — and some are based on best estimates — the Royals should have roughly $20 million-$23 million to spend on improvements while keeping the current roster intact.
“Rest assured,” Moore said, “we’ll do everything we can to add the necessary talent and win the negotiations of certain players. Keep in mind, we did that in the offseason of 2007 (Gil Meche and Octavio Dotel) and 2008 (José Guillen).”
Moore also points to recent successes in signing the club’s own players to long-term deals: Soria (2008), Greinke (2009), Billy Butler (2011), Alex Gordon (2012), Salvy Perez (2012) and Alcides Escobar (2012).
“I think we’ve demonstrated in the past through ownership support,” Moore said, “that we can be as aggressive as we need to be to build our team … We’re going to keep doing this thing in a very consistent manner.
“Someday, we’re going to wake up, and we’re going to be good.”